Public health officials announce 3 new COVID-19 deaths in Toronto

Toronto's medical officer of health reported three new COVID-19-related deaths in the city on Wednesday.

Dr. Eileen de Villa told reporters that the deaths involve an elderly man who tested positive at North York General Hospital and two residents of Seven Oaks long term care home in Scarborough. The elderly man had pre-existing health conditions, de Villa said.

"My sincerest condolences to the families and friends of these individuals," she said.

There are a total of 319 COVID-19 cases in Toronto, an increase of 39 from Tuesday, de Villa said. A total of 22 people are hospitalized, with fewer than 10 in intensive care beds.

Sixteen per cent of the cases are due to community transmission of the virus, she added.

"This virus is spreading in our city and this is why I keep urging everyone to stay home. When you don't stay home you are putting our most vulnerable residents at risk: our parents and our grandparents; people with compromised immune systems; and people with chronic health conditions," de Villa said.

City to close parks, playgrounds

At the news conference, De Villa and Matthew Pegg, Toronto Fire Chief and head of the city's emergency response team announced that the city is closing all city-owned playgrounds effective immediately to slow the spread of COVID-19. De Villa said she recommended that the city do so.

"I strongly urge everyone to take your part seriously. Unlike other cities and countries, we still have the opportunity to slow this virus spread, but our window is closing. We will get through this by working together. So please stay home, stay safe and take care of each other," de Villa said.

City to close sports fields, off-leash dog parks

In a news release on Wednesday, the city said it is closing other amenities in parks as well.

These amenities include sports fields, basketball and tennis courts, off-leash dog parks, skateboard and BMX parks, picnic areas, outdoor exercise equipment as well as parking lots attached to its parks system.

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"While the public has been advised that fresh air and exercise is good if you are not ill, and if so, you should stay home, it has been observed that individuals are using parks and their amenities to congregate," the city said.

"The public has also shared its concerns about how parks amenities are supporting that congregation. The city is urging all residents, who are not performing essential or critical services, to stay home."

Toronto Mayor John Tory said he understands that parks are the heart of many neighbourhoods across the city but the city needs to take steps to ensure members of the public are not congregating in these areas as the virus continues to spread.

"They are some of the best parts of our city, but playgrounds and other park amenities are gathering places and the more that people gather, the more COVID-19 will spread in our community, putting lives at risk," Tory said.

"As much as it will cause further discomfort and disruption, the steps we are taking today are based — as we have based all decisions around protecting the public — on the strong recommendation of our medical officer of health." 

Signs to be set up at parks on Thursday

Beginning on Thursday, signs will be set up across Toronto's parks to advise of closures, including playgrounds.

Where fencing or gates exists, they will be locked. Unfenced playground structures will be signed and taped off. Parks green spaces will remain accessible, but all amenities within city parks will be closed.

The city said its bylaws give the general manager of parks, forestry and recreation the power to close parks and amenities. Violations of the bylaws governing city-owned parks depend on the offence, but can result in fines of up to $5,000. 

Toronto has more than 1,500 parks, 800 playgrounds, 300 soccer and multi-use fields, 300 baseball diamonds, about 70 off-leash dog areas, 150 basketball courts, 360 parking lots at 200 locations, 14 skate parks, five BMX parks, 50 park locations with outdoor fitness equipment, 600 tennis and pickleball courts at 185 locations, 12 outdoor allotment gardens, and 83 picnic gardens.

Toronto follows lead of York, Halton regions

After Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency on March 17, some municipalities in York Region began advising residents not to use public playgrounds. The municipalities include Markham, which closed city facilities on March 18 until April 5. 

"Playgrounds should not be used — equipment is not sanitized," the city of Markham says on its website.

And this past weekend, Conservation Halton, which is a conservation authority in Halton Region, closed its parks.

"Conservation Halton is continuing to monitor the latest COVID-19 developments and is taking precautions to keep our workplace safe for staff, visitors and partners across the watershed," it says on its website.